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A Portrait of Perseverance and Excellence: Anna Klumpke (1856-1936)

The following article is found in the 3rd Quarter 2019 issue of The Art of the Portrait journal.

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, a petit genre painter who portrayed everyday life and portraiture, was born in San Francisco on October 28, 1856. Anna was the oldest daughter of German-born John Klumpke’s and American Dorothea Klumpke’s six children. Anna’s well-educated and hard-working father immigrated to New Orleans, and in 1850, he left Louisiana and moved to San Francisco for the Gold Rush where he eventually made his fortune in real estate and became a well-respected and wealthy citizen.

The Klumpke’s wealth allowed the children a refined lifestyle which focused around the arts and education. When Anna was three and a half years old, she fell and suffered a femoral fracture. She fell again at five years old and developed osteomyelitis with purulent knee arthritis. Due to Anna’s physical limitations and medical treatments, she was tutored at home. She and her siblings thrived educationally, taking lessons in German, French, art, and music. During Anna’s childhood and convalescence, she received a “Rosa” doll- a porcelain-faced model of artist Rose Bonheur which was popular in Europe and America at the time. Anna grew up playing with the Rosa doll which spawned dreams of meeting the artist and perhaps persuing an artistic career.

Portrait of the Artist’s Father (1912), oil on canvas, 38.25 x 46 in.

In 1876, to accommodate all of the children’s growing educational needs, the family moved to Paris where Anna enrolled at the Académie Julian and studied with Tony Robert Fleury, Felix de Vuillefroy, William Adolphe Bouguereau and Jules Lefebvre. She excelled at the Academie and won numerous awards including outstanding student of the year and the silver medal at the Versailles Exhibition. Anna became the first woman to win the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This prestigious award is for the best oil painting by an American artist shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art’s annual exhibition. Anna also won the bronze medal at the 1889 Universal Exhibition and was a regular contributor to the Salon des Artistes Français.

As a student at the Academie Julian, Anna saw Rosa Bonheur’s Plowing in the Nivernais in the museum. She was so influenced by the painting that she requested permission to paint a copy. Anna later wrote in her Memoirs of an Artist (1940), “How often I lingered before the picture, was it not, indeed, in copying that picture that there came to me a revelation of my artistic vocation? That picture became to me a talisman.” Through the process of painting the copy, her childhood dream to meet Rosa was also reawakened.

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur (1898), oil on canvas, 48 1/8 x 38 x 5/8 in.

When Anna first contacted Rosa in 1887, Anna was a young, well-established artist who was painting portraits, teaching, exhibiting her work, and winning awards. After their brief introduction, the two began a ten-year pen-pal correspondence. In 1897, Anna was living, painting, and teaching in Boston when she wrote to Rosa asking permission to paint her portrait. Rosa agreed, and in 1898 Anna traveled to see Rosa at Chateau de By in Thomery. It was there that Anna painted Rosa’s portrait that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with Rosa’s The Horse Fair. During the painting process, the two artists fell in love and lived together for the rest of Rosa’s life. Before Rosa died, she arranged to have her estate transferred to Anna as sole heir, which was unheard of at that time.

After Rosa’s death, Anna continued to paint and oversaw the sale of Bonheur's collected work. She also founded the Rosa Bonheur Prize at the Société des Artistes Français and organized the Rosa Bonheur Museum at the Fontainebleau Palace which remains open to the public.

Anna then turned to writing and publishing a biography of Bonheur entitled Sa Vie Son Oeuvre (Her Life, Her Work) in 1908 based on her own diary and Bonheur's letters, sketches, and other writings. Anna told the story of Bonheur's life and related how she had met Bonheur, how they fell in love, and how she had become the artist's official portraitist and intimate companion. The book was recently translated and published in English in 1998.

In the Wash-House (1888), oil on canvas, 79 x 67 in.

In France, Anna is sometimes referred to as being the American companion and biographer of the French painter Rosa Bonheur, but Anna was also an accomplished artist. Her paintings are displayed in many locations including at The Met, The National Portrait Gallery, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. She was a progressive, intelligent woman thanks in part to her mother who had grand ambitions for her children and was determined to educate them. Mrs. Klumpke instilled in her children a desire for professional careers and the ability to achieve financial independence. She also encouraged Anna to overcome physical obstacles and become successful even though Anna walked with a limp and required the assistance of a cane for the rest of her life.

Like Rosa, Anna was awarded France’s highest honor, the Legion of Honor, in 1936. After Rosa’s death, Anna divided her time between the Chateau de By, Boston, and San Francisco painting landscapes and portraits. Anna died in 1942 at the age of 86 in San Francisco. Anna’s ashes were interred with Rosa’s, Nathalie Micas’, and her mother’s in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

If you are interested in reading more on Rosa Bonheur, please read my article published in the 2nd Quarter 2018 issue of The Art of the Portrait journal.

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